Rank-and-file Democrats upset about inaction on COVID-19 relief have not been shy about encouraging congressional leaders to get back to the negotiating table. But they’ve got more leverage points besides rhetoric that they’ve so far declined to use.
For all the talk of “Democrats in disarray,” as Republicans’ like to claim, the frustration in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s caucus over her not having yet secured a bipartisan deal on another aid package is relatively tame.
House Democrats haven’t filed a discharge petition to force a bill to the floor without Pelosi’s blessing. They’ve not drafted a resolution calling for her ouster. Not a single Democrat has suggested Pelosi’s prospects for another term as speaker is in jeopardy if she doesn’t close a deal.
Those are all tools available to Democrats wishing to express displeasure with their leadership — and ones disgruntled Republicans deployed when they were in the majority.
So are Democrats in disarray? Not really — or at least not yet.
The key test of the dissent, however, will come Friday as a Republican-led discharge petition ripens on a bill to renew the expired Paycheck Protection Program that provided small businesses forgivable loans for payroll and other fixed costs. If at least 20 Democrats join all 198 GOP members in signing it, they can force a vote.
Washington GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler filed the discharge petition on a bill Small Business ranking member Steve Chabot of Ohio introduced this month to provide another round of PPP loans for businesses that have experienced at least a 25 percent drop in revenue during the pandemic or a first round for any businesses that weren’t approved before the program expired Aug. 8.
The PPP program has bipartisan support but Democrats want to provide trillions more in aid for state and local governments, schools, testing, enhanced unemployment benefits and more.
The discharge petition is a common tool of the minority — Republicans have filed four others this Congress — but getting to the 218 signatures needed to force a vote is often a long shot. The tool can be successful, though, when bipartisanship prevails over leadership interests, like a 2015 discharge petition that led to the revival of the Export-Import Bank.
A more recent bipartisan effort in 2018 to force votes on a series of competing immigration bills fell short by a few signatures. But the effort, a rare majority-filed discharge petition led by moderate Republicans, forced the-then GOP leadership to work on the issue and eventually schedule immigration votes that ultimately failed.
Considering but not decided
If Democrats really wanted to force Pelosi’s hand, they could lead their own discharge petition on a compromise bill. But there’s no such comprehensive package sitting around ready to be discharged. When the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus unveiled a $1.5 trillion framework last week, they said they had no plans to turn it into bill text or file a discharge petition.
Some moderate Democrats, however, were considering signing the GOP discharge petition on the PPP bill. A senior Democratic aide close to the moderate wing said as of Wednesday about a dozen members were contemplating signing. CQ Roll Call found a few who are considering signing, but none have seemed to make a final call ahead of the petition ripening.
The following comments from those considering it came before Pelosi on Thursday asked her committee chairs to put together a scaled back aid package in an effort to restart negotiations with the White House. The House may vote on that package absent a bipartisan deal, according to senior Democratic aide.
It was not immediately clear if that decision was made in response to Democrats thinking about signing the discharge petition or if that would change those members' considerations.
Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips told CQ Roll Call he’s considering signing the petition but hadn’t made a decision yet because he’d prefer to see movement on a broader measure like the Problem Solvers plan he helped put together.
“I’d like to think that we can still come together on a bipartisan, comprehensive, thoughtful COVID relief package that includes [PPP],” he said. “None of us want to peel things off.”
Maine Rep. Jared Golden “is pushing hard for a bipartisan deal before the election,” his spokesman Nick Zeller told CQ Roll Call. “He’s taking nothing off the table to deliver COVID—19 relief to his constituents as soon as possible, including supporting a discharge petition for a narrowly-targeted PPP extension.”
Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger “is strongly considering” signing the petition “if there is no movement towards a bipartisan COVID-19 deal and floor vote,” her spokesman Connor Joseph said.
New York Rep. Anthony Brindisi is also considering signing but hasn’t made a final decision, according to his spokesman Luke Jackson.
Other moderates seemed less drawn to the discharge petition as a way to leverage action. Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey said he was “not likely” to sign to the petition, while Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria said she “hasn't thought about it.”
Other moderates who’ve expressed frustration over inaction on a coronavirus relief deal — Max Rose of New York, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan — did not return a request for comment.
The aforementioned members have been among several Democrats calling for congressional leaders to get back to the negotiating table and get a deal.
Their urgency for compromise, which they say is driven by constituent needs, is more acute though because they face competitive reelection races. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Horn and Rose races as Toss-up. The Brindisi, Cunningham and Spanberger races are rated Tilt Democratic, and the Golden and Luria races Lean Democratic. Phillips, Gottheimer and Slotkin are in Solid Democratic races, according to Inside Elections.
Golden led a letter to Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy Tuesday co-signed by 20 other Democrats, including all mentioned above except Luria, and 13 Republicans saying the House should remain working in Washington until there’s a bipartisan deal.
“Our constituent’s expectations in the midst of this crisis are that we not only rise to the occasion and stay at the table until we have delivered the relief they so desperately need, but also that we set aside electoral politics and place the needs of the country before any one region, faction or political party,” they wrote.
‘Hope that no Democrat would sign’
Democrats signing a GOP discharge petition would be a more direct affront to their leadership than any letter or public statement they’ve made so far.
That is certainly the signal Democratic leaders are sending. “Our unity served us well yesterday. Our unity will again serve us well in the ongoing COVID-19 relief efforts,” Pelosi said this week in a “Dear Colleague” letter regarding their positioning on the continuing resolution the chamber passed and sent over to the Senate.
“I would hope that no Democrat would sign a discharge petition, which turns over control of the House floor to the other party, the minority party,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Wednesday.
“But what I hope they would do is urge that we pass a bill which reflects, perhaps, a substantial reduction in what we thought was necessary, but nevertheless, dealing with all of the issues that are critical if we're going to confront COVID-19 … in a comprehensive package,” the Maryland Democrat added.
Hoyer seemed to be encouraging members to pressure Pelosi to allow the House to vote a compromise bill, even if Senate Republicans and the White House don’t engage.
Pelosi has on numerous occasions offered to compromise with the GOP on a $2.2 trillion package, halfway between House Democrats’ $3.4 trillion bill passed in May and Senate Republicans’ original $1 trillion proposal. But the White House has only shown willingness to go as high as the $1.5 trillion the Problem Solvers proposed and Pelosi has dismissed that as inadequate.
For weeks now Hoyer and other members have lobbied Pelosi to consider additional House action but until Thursday she held to her position that the only bill that should be coming to the floor is a bipartisan deal, arguing that voting on a lesser partisan measure than the $3.4 trillion bill Democrats already passed would only be negotiating against themselves.
Before Pelosi greenlit the effort to put together a scaled down bill, Hoyer publicly pushed back on that argument Wednesday.
“I’ve been urging for some weeks that we do an alternative response to the Senate — not because I think we ought to negotiate with ourselves,” he said. “But the speaker’s set the amount of resources that we are prepared to deal with. I think we ought to put that into legislation and to show what we’re prepared to respond to do and give it to the Senate.”
Hoyer acknowledged that part of the appeal in the House passing a compromise proposal is to give Democrats a tout on the campaign trail.
“I think our best politics — you talked about going out and campaigning — is to get an alternative sent to the Senate, which effectively is a compromise, even if the Senate won’t talk about compromise,” he said.
It’s unclear, however, if Democrats could find compromise within their own party to avoid a fractured vote on a messaging bill. Pelosi has signaled as much.
“By and large, overwhelmingly the progressives want us to bring the $3.4 trillion bill back to the floor. Others want us to just do a bill that says, ‘This is what we would do if only they would come along,’” Pelosi said on a New York Times podcast Monday. “And then I want to have an agreement.”
Rachel Oswald and Chris Marquette contributed to this report.